Posthumous awards continued, with Robyn and/or Ava accepting them. All of his major films were released on video for the world to enjoy, with laser disc versions following and DVD versions soon to come. His recordings are continually being re-released on CD. As the technical specifications of home entertainment grow and change, Astaire's legacy is quickly released in the latest formats.
Ava has homes in Ireland and Pennsylvania, sharing her life with Richard and their family. Peter, following his step-father's love of police work, is a sheriff in Santa Barbara county with his wife, Janet, and children and Fred, Jr. has remained a charter pilot, along with ranching. He lives in San Luis Obispo with wife, Carol, and their children.
But a new controversy has arisen in Fred Astaire's name.
Robyn Astaire continues to serve as her ex-husband's champion - trying to adhere to his wishes and the details of his Will. Her efforts to "protect Fred," as she said in People Magazine have included multiple lawsuits.
On October 5, 1989, she sued Columbia Pictures for $25,000 for not making profit Payments for You'll Never Get Rich and You Were Never Lovelier. On December 27, 1989, she sued the operators of the Fred Astaire Dance Studios chain for $ 100,000 for distributing a series of dance videos with Fred's name on them, although the Ronby corporation claimed they got permission in 1965 to use his name in connection with the Dance schools. In 1990, she sued CBS records for back royalties, claiming she was the successor to a 1935 agreement with Brunswick, guaranteeing her 5% of retail sales and demanding a full accounting. In September of 1990, she sued Forbes, Inc. for $250,000 for using a picture of Fred sitting in a boat for one of their ads, with the caption "Don't miss the boat."
In 1992, Turner Pictures produced M-G-M: When the Lion Roars, a lush, three- part documentary of the history of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Because of Robyn's disagreements with Ted Turner and his company, Astaire was sadly (and strangely) missing. In Part Three, which focuses on the Golden Age of the M-G-M musical, Astaire loses his position in film history. He is talked about and seen in stills and newsreel footage but, when clips from his films are shown, they are of his co-stars... as if he never existed at M-G-M.
Lawsuit after lawsuit continued as Robyn tried to stop unauthorized usage of her late husband's image. One of the most highly publicized (and controversial) incidents occurred when Ginger Rogers was awarded the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. During the live ceremony, clips with Fred were shown as the most important part of the tribute to Rogers and her contributions to American arts and culture. When Robyn refused to allow the footage to be shown on the December 30, 1992 CBS-TV televised event, Rogers was understandably confused and hurt. The tabloids and trade papers were filled with her comments and critical outcries. During the 1993 creation of That's Entertainment! Ill, the Hollywood press howled with negative comments about Robyn's high financial demands for inclusion of his footage in the new compilation. That's Entertainment! Ill was released in May, 1994 and the contemporary "Generation-X press" was not pleased, although Entertainment Weekly had to confess, "We see Fred Astaire in two different takes - shot weeks apart - of the same dance routine from The Belle of Broadway (sic) and marvel at the otherworldly precision with which his steps match up."
While British author David Shipman was researching his biography on Astaire in the United States in 1995, he tried to contact Robyn for her input. He was informed by her lawyers that, as she was writing a book of her own, she would not participate. Although Shipman died on April 22, 1996, his book will hopefully be completed by his associate, Felix Brenner. Robyn's book is also eagerly anticipated. She continued to represent her late husband, prominently billed as "Mrs. Fred Astaire." On May 22, 1996, she endorsed the 15th annual (1995-1996 season) Astaire Awards, giving out statuettes to winners Savion Olover and Donna McKechnie for their achievements in theater dance.
An even greater controversy erupted in 1997 when Robyn accepted a substantial sum of money from the makers of the Dirt Devil vacuum to use Astaire's image (altered by computer) to dance with the hand-held vacuum cleaners in a series of commercials. Ava's anger was highly visible when portions of her letter to Mike Merriman, the president of the company, were quoted in both Time Magazine and Variety: "Your paltry, unconscionable commercials are the antithesis of everything my lovely, gentle father represented."
Fred Astaire continued to be remembered. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences staged a centennial tribute to Astaire on Friday, May 14, 2000, four days after what would have been his 101st birthday.
Less than a year later, on Sunday, 18 February 2001, Ava Astaire McKenzie staged "Fred Astaire: A Daughter's Tribute" in London. While it was a successful event, playing to a packed and wildly enthusiastic audience, it was marred by an absence of film clips of Fred's movies (apart from the public domain Second Chorus and Royal Wedding). Robyn insisted on a special disclaimer stating that she was allowing the clips to be shown, and a special acknowledgement to be both printed in the program and announced. When Ava was unable to accede to the request, Robyn denied her the use of the film clips. Later, Robert Wagner, who was a special guest at the show, made a statement to Associated Press, stating that he thought it was terrible that someone who "knew Fred for such a short time" should have control over Fred's work. He also said that he knew Astaire very well and was sure Astaire would have been horrified over such a situation - his widow denying his own daughter the use of his film clips.
On September 19, 1990, Hermes Pan had joined Astaire to collaborate on heavenly projects and on April 25, 1995, Ginger Rogers died in her home in Rancho Mirage, California. Newspapers, magazines and TV were filled with images of Astaire and Rogers as writers and TV commentators tried to once again capsulize all that they contributed to film and world culture.
Fred Astaire's life and career speak for themselves. The grace, the style, the elegance and the professionalism can hardly be tarnished by controversy or petty Financial squabbles. During a November 25, 1995, CBS-TV news report about the resurgence of ballroom dancing in colleges and universities across America, an unidentified twentysomething male student said, "Fred Astaire is my role model." In a special collector's issue of Entertainment Weekly. "The 100 Greatest Movie Stars of All Time," published in the Fall, 1996, Fred Astaire is number 19. The American Film Institute named Fred Astaire fifth on its list of the 100 Greatest Movie Stars of all time - sixty-seven years after his film debut.
Fred Astaire's indelible mark on the history of cinema, dance, stage, television and music remains for future generations to observe - and to be dazzled and inspired by. His choreographic innovations for the camera continue to be used as a benchmark for all photographed dance. His personal sense of style, wardrobe and behavior will be a measuring stick of elegance that other men will be compared to. And each time we hear one of the scores of songs he introduced to the Hit Parade Hall of Fame, he will soar effortlessly across our collective memories. Indeed, Fred Astaire is something that "They Can't Take That Away from Me."
View the Awards and Nominations that Fred received...
The above is adapted from "Fred Astaire: A Bio-Bibliography" by Larry Billman (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1997)